Places

Photo Essay: The Best of the British Isle's Endless Sea Cliffs

The big, the bad, the bold, and the beautiful

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

Climbers often use the words “magical,” “majestic,” and “monstrous” to describe the sea cliffs of the British Isles. Here, the exposure above the Atlantic’s dark, ferocious waters, the taste of the sea air, the cry of the gulls, and the feeling of isolation conspire to overwhelm the senses. The British Isles have a vast, diverse coastline stretching to over 8,000 miles, with 30-plus rock types, including limestone, granite, gneiss, quartzite, dolerite, sandstone, and pyroclastic breccia.

On these walls, you’ll find more than 10,000 routes, with opportunities to climb sport, traditional, and deep-water solo—often all at the same venue. Take the limestone cliffs of Swanage in sunny south England. Infinite Gravity (F8a+; 5.13c) in Blackers Hole, Ocean Boulevard (E3 5b; 5.10d) on Boulder Ruckle, and Freeborn Man (6c S1; 5.11b) at Conner Cove represent, respectively, the crème de la crème of these disciplines just a stone’s throw apart.

Photo Gallery: 9 British Isle Sea Cliff Climbs

None
Mike Hutton

Talented sport climber Jordan Buys enjoying the golden hour as he powers up the unrelenting line of The Beast (F8c; 5.14b) at the Diamond on North Wales’s coastline.

Over the last few years, this magnificent wall of quality limestone has gained a reputation as one of the best hard sport venues in the UK. Spread across its leaning walls are line after line of stamina challenges in the F7a–F9a (5.11d–5.14d) grade range. Most of the climbing is on pockets, and the style is power-endurance.

The 120-foot The Beast climbs the ultra-steep The Brute (F8b; 5.13d) but then quests up to the full height of the crag. There is no stopper move, but to avoid a meltdown you’ll need to be cunning and recover properly at the intermediate lower-off. First ascensionist Ben Bransby claimed this to be the best F8c he had done anywhere. What really separates the Diamond from other sea-cliff sport crags is its magical location and epic approach, including a 160-foot via ferrata descent to get to the cliff base and a possible swim out should you time the tides wrong.

None
Mike Hutton

Neil McCallum leading the wildly exposed third pitch of Prophecy of Drowning (E2 5b, 5a, 5c, 5a; 5.10d) on the Great Arch on Scotland’s Isle of Pabbay.

When Scottish climbers Kevin Howett and Graham Little set siege to this sensational sea arch back in 1996, they discovered what is possibly the finest route of its grade in the Outer Hebrides. The Lewisian gneiss encountered is top quality, but will do its damnedest to shred your rope as you embark on the terrifying 330-foot abseil approach. It doesn’t take long for the seriousness of the situation to sink in as you gaze up from a lonely ledge above the sea and realize the easiest escape route weighs in at E1 (5.10). Whilst none of the climbing is particularly hard on Prophecy, the steepness and exposure play on the mind, creating a sense of urgency. Fortunately, there is always gear at hand, which greatly diminishes the fear factor on the crux of the sensational finishing crack.

None
Mike Hutton

Meg Jones approaches the wide finishing section of the stunningly situated Crack of Zawn (HVS 5b; 5.10a) on the grippy sandstone at Elgol on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

This sculptured fissure soars up through a wall of golden quartz sandstone splashed with bright-green lichen. As you climb higher, the jagged peaks of the Cuillin Ridge jump out at you from the ocean, a reminder that Skye is as much about mountains as sea cliffs. Influenced heavily by the warming phenomenon of the Gulf Stream, this venue experiences an almost tropical feel, with land and water temperatures often many degrees higher than in southern Scotland. So concealed is this solitary gem that it took until 1987 for local activist Noel Williams to discover it whilst on a random boat voyage. 

None
Mike Hutton

Madeleine Cope battles the savagely steep and unforgiving Big Issue (E9 6c; 5.13c R) on the majestic Bosherston Head at Pembroke in South Wales.

The route follows a brutally thin crack and solution pockets on the magnificent orange shield at Bosherston Head. Originally bolted by Pete Oxley, the route was stripped of its hardware before John Dunne’s headpoint first ascent back in 1996, and was so ahead of its time that it waited four years for a repeat, by Steve McClure. Many ascents to date have been done with a selection of in-situ gear compromising wires, one peg, and a thread. Even in this style, it’s still generally accepted that the E9 grade is warranted because of the scary 15-foot runout at half height and the fact the climbing goes on for 120 punishing feet.

None
Mike Hutton

Dave Turnbull feeling the strain on the runout crux of Black Magic (E5 6a, 5c; 5.11c).

On Cornwall’s Atlantic coast is an enormous sweep of jet-black pillow lava forming the mighty Pentire Head. In the mornings, the rock is often coated in a treacherous film, but on late-summer evenings when the moisture has lifted, it’s a charming place. No section on Black Magic is desperate, but there is no rest for those tiring feet either as you augur in on dime edges to place tiny wires. I will never forgot the day I abseiled in to take photos. British Mountaineering Council’s Dave Turnbull was hosting an international climbers’ meet, and it wasn’t till he was halfway up the first pitch that he wished for stiffer boots. It didn’t help either that the adjacent climber on the equally committing Darkinbad the Brightdayler had crossed his ropes over Dave’s! 

None
Mike Hutton

Jordan Buys fully focused on the bold but beautiful Primal Scream (E5 6b; 5.12a) on Fairhead’s Rathlin Wall, Ireland.

The Rathlin Wall is a testing ground for some of the UK’s best climbers. Whilst the corners and grooves are more moderate, it’s on the blank and compact walls where you’ll find the big E numbers. These lines typically rely on precision sidepulls, intricate flakes, and razor-sharp edges—and a calm head for when when the gear is shallow and a long way beneath you. Primal Scream makes a fine introduction to the more difficult climbs, like Ricky Bell’s 190-foot Complete Scream (E7 6b; 5.13a R) just to the left, which relies on nothing but skyhooks (often held in place by Blu-Tack) for the psychological crux. A visiting Alex Honnold thought the gear too poor on this route to warrant using a rope, and so opted to free-solo it instead, much to the amazement of an onlooking crowd.

None
Mike Hutton

Sam Hamer does battle with the vicious crack of Sharkbait (E5 6b; 5.12a) on Ireland’s Burren sea cliff whilst his belayer, Ed Hamer, just about manages to stay dry as the full force of the Atlantic Ocean crashes into the boulders below.

On the enormous sweep of rock known as the Mirror Wall at the Burren are some of Ireland’s finest crack climbs.

The 100-foot testpiece of Sharkbait has all you could want from a sea-cliff route: perfect rock, bomber protection, and bags of atmosphere. It’s also close to the classic corner of Pis Fliuch (HVS 5a; 5.9), so you can grab a quick warmup before diving into this continuous crack line, freed by the legendary Eddie Cooper in summer 1988. From the word go, you will encounter finger-shredding locks that don’t relent till a poor rest at half-height. The protection is good, but you need mad stamina to hang on and place it. If you manage this one clean, then you might like to sample the even more torturous Damn the Torpedoes (E6 6b; 5.12c) just to the left.

None
Mike Hutton

Heather Ohlyon the final pitch of Resolution Direct (E2 5b, 5b, 5b; 5.10c), one of the finest multi-pitch adventures at Gogarth in North Wales.

Resolution Direct is an unrelenting expedition up gigantic quartzite flakes on Gogarth’s tallest section. The exposure creeps up the moment you embark on the steep, grassy scramble to the tidal ledges near the route’s base. There is only a six-hour tidal window when you can access the start, plus the rock can be damp till the afternoon sun comes around. Despite the positive holds and abundant gear, there is always a feeling of tension as the daylight fades and you realize the impossibility of an abseil retreat to the vanishing ledges. Combine this with sometimes-vicious seagulls and the odd bit of loose rock, and you have the perfect ingredients for an epic sea-cliff extravaganza.

None
Mike Hutton

Martin Kocsis and Chris Tan soaking up the wild aura at the remote, rugged sea cliffs of Eshaness, on Scotland’s magical Shetland Islands.

The featured route, Mary (VS 4c; 5.8), is just one of many that weave up through the seemingly blank walls of pyroclastic breccia. Andestic tuffs and lava bombs created this rather fragile-looking material. The exploding gases have resulted in an endless array of pockets that take the odd cam. This route and others like it may not be physically hard, but they are mentally demanding considering the remoteness. The rock architecture also lends itself to well-protected cracks and groove lines. To date, there are more than 1,000 routes in the Shetlands, many in the VS (5.8) to E1 (5.10) category and often exceeding 150 feet in length.

Click any photo to view the full size version.

The UK coast is home to some of the world’s oldest rocks. Until 80 million years ago, America and Eurasia were joined. Then volcanoes erupted in the middle of the super-continent. Magma forced the land apart, creating North America and Europe/the British Isles—and our coastline. This cooling lava formed the granite and gneiss encountered on the Cornish and Lewis sea cliffs, respectively. UK ethics are often strict, and some cliffs are “no bolts”; the wet, cold climate keeps visitors away, as do the abseil approaches. This is definitely not the French Riviera, with its bolt-studded limestone above balmy seas. Still, there are variances in climate and commitment, and you can climb anything from a single-pitch non-tidal route in 70-degree sunshine to a multi-pitch adventure with hanging belays in Baltic temps.

The almost-tropical Jurassic south coast of England offers a relaxing ambience, with inviting waters. Along these shores, you’ll encounter steep, juggy limestone at venues like Swanage and Portland. With cliffs that rise to over 160 feet covering grades from VS (5.4) to E8 (5.13) and the convenience of moderate sport routes at the more recently developed Portland, this venue has become popular. In late summer when the seas reach a staggering 70° F, deep-water soloists flock to the sparkling coves for big splashdowns and late-night parties.

“The best is in the West,” Cornish climbers say, and it’s the granite that oozes quality at the southwestern tip of England. Yellow lichens decorate the ledges and pillars of this remarkable textured rock, and when the winter sun warms the cliffs there is no better place. Vomiting sea birds, salt-corroded pegs, and the surging Atlantic swell all serve to heighten your awareness of the elements. The dramatic cliffs on iconic Land’s End are home to some of the hardest climbs in the area, and routes like the committing Atlantic Ocean Wall (E5 6b; 5.12a) lure in more adventurous teams. Sennen Cove, with its sun-bleached platforms, is a charming place full of steep, gymnastic routes on sculptured rock, and is famous for its abundance of easier lines, such as Demo Route (Hard Severe 4b; 5.7). Chair Ladder epitomizes Cornish multi-pitch climbing, with its well-known classic Diocese (VS 4c, 5a, 4a, 4b; 5.8). Spending hours strapped to the rock as waves thunder in allows the mind to drift, with nothing but the cries of the gulls and the sulfurous smell of seaweed for company.

Questing north, one encounters Wales, with its extensive Pembrokeshire coast. This area is packed with steep, challenging testpieces on bullet limestone. Hidden in the forbidding zawns (sea-etched caves or fissures) are some of the UK’s most sought-after lines, including John Dunne’s Big Issue (E9 6c; 5.13c R) on the magnificent Bosherston Head, Rock Idol (E1 5a; 5.10a) at Mother Carey’s Kitchen, and Pleasure Dome (E3 5c; 5.11a) at Stennis Head. Not surprisingly, many of the world’s top wads make the journey each year. Here, much of the hardest climbing is safe, as gear is plentiful and the falls are soft drops into space. This region experiences the second largest tidal range in the world—up to 50 feet—and in winter ferocious storms shift car-sized boulders. Back in 2004, an entire section of St. Govan’s Head collapsed into the sea, destroying Public Enemy, one of the area’s first E5s (5.12a’s). In the mornings, heavy mists often ebb into the coves, making conditions treacherous and moist.

North Wales, home to Gogarth and Rhoscolyn, is for the hardened trad climber. The often-friable quartzite requires tenacity and a cool head for finding the sparse gear. Gogarth’s main cliff soars to over 350 feet and has seen many generations of Britain’s best leave their mark. Tales of harrowing runouts, monster falls, and epic benightments are common. The 360-foot Gogarth (E1 5b; 5.10b) is the standout. It’s committing and exposed—and the hardest pitch is saved for last, a remarkable achievement by Baz Ingle and Martin Boysen back in 1964. In contrast, the nearby single-pitch cliffs of Rhoscolyn offer a tamer setting, with the opportunity to climb the 120-foot arch of Electric Blue (6b+ S2; 5.11a), a famed deep-water solo.

Just a boat ride away are the hidden treasures of Ireland. The Emerald Isle can remain cloaked in mist for days, but when the sun emerges there are few places better than Fairhead, just down from Belfast. Giant columns of hexagonal dolerite stand like ancient monuments. The fissures between these megalithic towers define world-class stamina-fests, often consuming an entire rack. Since the early 1960s, climbers have established some 400 routes over this three-mile stretch of cliff, which rises to 330 feet in parts. Yet the Irish climbing community is relatively small, so there is still much scope for development. Eventually, even the sturdiest of climbers will become worn down by Fairhead’s epic nature. It’s then that the sunny limestone platforms on the west-facing Burren cliffs sound good. The mighty 600-by-170-foot sweep of rock that includes the Mirror Wall projects straight into the Atlantic and is riddled with some of Earth’s finest finger cracks, including the 150-foot splitter The Cutter (E4 6a; 5.11c).

Then there are the remote Hebridean Islands off the far northwest coast of Scotland. The three-billion-year-old, razor-sharp Lewisian gneiss on the isles of Lewis and Pabbay is some of the oldest metamorphic rock on the planet. Eye-catching bands of pink pegmatite and quartz intrusions add to the exquisite color palette. The uninhabited Pabbay has over 400 routes, and the Lewis coastline in excess of 1,000. Untold numbers of unclimbed lines await for those who make the long journey. Sought-after routes include Pabbay’s Prophecy of Drowning (E2 5c; 5.10d) and Lewis’s monumental sea arch, The Prozac Link (E4 5c; 5.11b).

Dotted along the Scottish coastline rise sea stacks galore. Often, the only mode of approach is for the first person to swim and then rig a Tyrolean back to the mainland for the rest of the party. The most important stack is the 450-foot Old Man of Hoy (E1 5b; 5.10a), situated amongst the Orkney Islands just off the north coast. Seals, minke whales, and dolphins inhabit these cold, wild waters, and it’s a privilege to witness them whilst dangling above the ocean.

The crown jewel, though, lies on the remote island of Shetland, the most northerly of the British Isles. At the most developed area, Eshaness, volcanic pockets of pyroclastic breccia plaster the enormous cliffs, with nothing between you and Iceland but dark, open water. With more rock types than the rest of the islands put together, and a lifetime’s worth of unclimbed rock, Shetland is possibly the ultimate sea-cliff-climber’s paradise. Serious development only started here in 2010 and has been limited mainly to the lower grades, so plenty of new opportunities exist for the next generation.

Mike Hutton (mikehuttonimages.com) is a UK-based adventure photographer and writer. He specializes in capturing images of climbers in rarely visited landscapes.